Originally created 12/01/05

On top of the world

NEW YORK - Tony Stewart checked into the presidential suite at the posh Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Monday.

The room comes with a full-time butler and the world's greatest town at his disposal.

The newly crowned NASCAR Nextel Cup Series champion started making his rounds Sunday night and he won't stop until he collects more than $5.8 million in bonuses and awards during the sport's season-ending banquet Friday night.

His whirlwind tour will continue later this month with a two-day celebration in his hometown of Columbus, Ind. Not only will the city hang banners, they will honor him with a parade.

When Stewart came to New York in 2002 as the champion, the trip signaled a welcome end to a tumultuous season. He was fined by his sponsor, Home Depot, for pushing a photographer, and he was ordered to take anger management classes. During his acceptance speech at the banquet, he displayed his diploma from those classes.

This time, he comes as a happy, grateful and humble champion. While others have walked squarely into the sport's cross-hairs this year, Stewart has channeled all of his attention to winning five races and being the leader in the standings for most of the regular and post season.

He was so impressive that fellow driver Mark Martin called him the best driver of the current era. In three short years, Stewart transformed his persona from boorish to respectful. Instead of drawing the ire of his competitors, he now earns their praise.

"Any time a great driver like that or a great group of drivers speak highly of you like that, that's probably the greatest honor in auto racing you can have," Stewart said.

Stewart arrived here Sunday night and had a private dinner with executives from the series sponsor, Sprint Nextel. Stewart not only was served by Waldorf-Astoria head chef John Doherty, he was given a tour of the hotel's kitchens which have prepared the awards dinner since 1981.

On Monday he was given a tour of New York landmarks. From there he took a ride through Central Park.

"I think when I got to New York, it finally hit me: The full spectrum of what we accomplished," Stewart said. "Being here for championship week, this is when it is going to hit us the most."

The highlight for fans will come today when the top-10 drivers take a "victory lap" through Manhattan.

Reach Don Coble at docoble@bellsouth.net.


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